Quick Take: The late David Carradine's favorite role(s!)
Circle of Iron (1978) was initially conceived as a “dream project” by famed martial artist/actor Bruce Lee in conjunction with two of his students James Coburn (The Great Escape, Our Man Flint) and Sterling Silliphant (Oscar winner for screenplay on In The Heat of the Night) in the late 1960’s. Due to disagreements over shooting choices and prejudices in the industry against Asians (especially with no leading man experience) helming a movie, the script was shelved. Once Bruce made a name for himself with titles such as Fists of Fury (1971) and Enter the Dragon (1973), Hollywood was much more accommodating. Ironically Lee was scheduled to meet for discussions about finally bringing the Silent Flute (as the script was titled) to fruition only one day after his untimely death in 1973.
David Carradine, of the TV series Kung Fu (1972-75) in a role that Lee coincidentally was in contention for (according to Lee’s wife, he originated the show’s concept), acquired the rights and was instrumental in having the Silent Flute made (he still laments the theatrical title). Yet, it is highly doubtful that the final product is exactly what Bruce had in mind. He envisioned a movie that would express the Taoist/Zen inspired aesthetics of his martial arts practice. As far as that goes, there is a good smattering of hazy Asian influenced philosophy (much answering of questions with questions) that would potentially give Yoda a headache and may have worked for Lee, but the film’s tacky composition is what I have a hard time believing he would have produced.
There is little chance a plot description can capture the dopey strangeness that pervades Circle of Iron but here goes. Set in an unnamed land (shot in Israel) and unspecified time, the story seems akin to a hero’s journey from a sword and sorcery tale, like Conan or Beastmaster, but involving martial arts. Cord (Jeff Cooper sporting a coiffure that would make any hair metal band proud) searches for the wizard Zetan (Christopher Lee), keeper of the Book of All Knowledge (who would not want that?). Our hero meanders about his quest enduring trials delivered by “Monkeyman” (David Carradine), a simian style creature reminiscent of a bad makeup job on a Star Trek alien, and “Changsha” (David Carradine), a trickster sultan who has no concerns pawning off one of his many wives to make a point and heads up a traveling carnival like entourage that knows how to throw a serious party. Cord also meets “The Blind Man” played by…you guessed it… Carradine. This sightless, barefoot wanderer is responsible for much of the brain freezing/teasing Zen wisdom dispensed and can additionally whoop ass with his flute.
Bruce Lee films have always possessed a modicum of cheesiness (attributable to working in the 70’s) that is competently overcome by the actor’s charismatic screen presence and awe inspiring fighting skills. Yet all of Lee’s work combined could not contend with the fantasy inspired camp permeating Circle of Iron. The actors dress in ridiculous outfits and state outrageous dialog while somehow not breaking character. Jeff Cooper steals the show with acting so impressively stilted (I was giddy with how bad his delivery is) that it is no surprise his biggest career achievement was a stint on the soap opera Dallas. I have already mentioned “Monkeyman” who is the leader of, what I guess could be called, the Monkey people comprised of Israeli actors donning not even vaguely convincing masks and looking human from the neck down while throwing a fit that would do the apes from 2001 proud (yep, it is that freakishly weird). Even weirder is the man in the desert (Eli Wallach) who is soaking in a pot of oil to dissolve his genitalia (the conversation accompanying this scene is priceless).
Circle of Iron has garnered a level of cult following even influencing films such as Kung Fu Panda who’s coveted Dragon Scroll is either an homage or blatant rip-off of the Book of All Knowledge containing the same “mind blowing” content. There is definitely fighting throughout, but I would never call this a martial arts film. Lee would have delivered much tighter choreography without the poorly edited, slow paced kung fu inspired dance moves offered up as combat yet imparting no sense of danger (which conveniently fits right in with the overall goofiness).
The flick’s niche market is probably comprised of those drawn to the “new age” spiritual message combined with those like myself who find the 70’s era fantasy style ridiculousness highly enjoyable. The film produces many unintentional laughs and slack jawed moments of bewilderment though this was not the intended reaction. If the idea of a horse getting roundhouse kicked in the head seems engaging (I rewound several times for full effect – no ill will against animals but this was inspiringly whacky), then you may have found a new guilty pleasure; just do not expect a Bruce Lee quality production.
Blue Underground, known for their offbeat collection of titles, brings Circle of Iron to Blu-ray. Neither the picture or sound quality will blow you away, but fans should be satisfied with this being the best home video version available. All the major extras from the “Kick Ass” DVD edition are ported over in standard-def though an essay about the film, still galleries and a draft of the original script by Lee and pals (that would be interesting) are absent.
The 1080p 1.66:1 framed transfer (lightly pillarboxed) is probably the best one can expect from a low budget 30ish year-old production. Softness pervades the image (a shame considering the beautiful Israeli terrain) with only extreme close-ups showing any commendable detail, and there are shots where neither the fore nor background is in focus. Black crush is evident in dark areas of the screen with night shots suffering even more when the film’s rampant grain runs amuck smothering detail. Also noticeable are speckles throughout, random flickering, a faint vertical line that comes and goes and reddish skin tones (though I cannot discount sunburn from filming outside).
The positives include great color saturation without bleeding, and the heavy grain does impart a very film-like appearance. I would wager this transfer is a step up from the DVD counterpart as the high bitrate minimizes digital artifacts, and, though poor by high-def standards, there is more detail than standard-def would impart. Though far, far from a demo disc, the inexpensive 70’s era filmmaking actually compliments the camp feel of the film and makes for an authentic experience.
The BD’s back cover states that the lossless audio is “bone crushing.” I can confirm that my recent viewing did not induce any damage to my skeletal system. While two high-def 7.1 surround tracks (Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio – 24 bit/48 Khz; I could not tell any discernable difference between the two) are presented, I only have a 5.1 setup but am highly doubtful the two extra channels would have added much value (maybe it does take 8 channels to break bones). Dynamic range fails to impress with any LFE response and brittleness in the upper registers, and surround presence is minimal with ambient effects bleeding into the rears sporting clumsy panning. Yet, considering the monaural source, what we get is not bad. For the most part, the soundtrack remains true to its roots with clear dialog, Bruce Smeaton’s fitting score and the music/effects from the fight sequences well rendered in the front channels. Nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done.
Sadly the original mono is not included but there is an English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX mix with subtitles in English (SDH), French and Spanish.
Commentary – Dick Gregory of Blue Underground hosts director Richard Moore. The track works partly as an interview with Gregory prompting Moore with questions while other times the director just speaks out on his own. While it is amazing that Moore can remember so many specific details of shooting on location or anecdotes about the crew decades later, the comments can grow repetitive. It is even more amazing how the director thinks the film holds up well (this is his only directorial effort) and even compliments, with no sense of irony, some of the campier aspects such as Christopher Lee’s crazy 70’s cult costume as “simple and understated.” He does regret that more nudity was not included and the fight scenes not being better (at least he realizes the level of quality there). While Moore sounds like a very likeable fellow, there is only so much background info I really need about this film.
Playing the Silent Flute (13:56) – David Carradine recounts working on the movie. He covers adapting the script, filming on location, playing four characters, the spirit of the movie, the choice of title and having his nose broken twice in four days. Of the dozens of films he has done, this was his favorite.
The Producer (28:45) – Co-producer Paul Maslansky describes highlights of his career including time spent making Circle of Iron, though only about a third of the interview is dedicated to the movie. Early on he worked on cheap Italian horror films, and he has produced many B movies including Hot Stuff, Return to Oz and the Villain with his biggest success being the Police Academy series. He references many actors he became lifelong friends with including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland, and, while a big chunk does not deal with movie, it is an interesting background on film production.
Karate Master (31:01) –Joe Lewis (stunt coordinator) emphasizes his career as a world champion in Karate and Kick Boxing (which he impressively is responsible for originating as a sport), movie stunt coordinator and martial arts film star (including how he derailed his acting career). As with the producer featurette, he only spends a third of his time talking up his work on Circle of Iron, but it is indeed interesting. A highlight is his confrontation with Carradine on set and the lively smack talk he gives about the star’s fighting skills or lack there of.
Audio Interview – (25:23) – A 1980 audio only interview for Kick magazine with co-writer Sterling Silliphant is played over a montage of still photos of himself, Bruce Lee and magazine covers and movie posters for Lee. The audio quality is listenable with noticeable hiss, and the final five minutes of the run time is written text from Silliphant complimenting his interview. He addresses his tutelage under Lee, the efforts to get the Silent Flute made and thoughts on the final product which he considers a disappointment. There is an apocryphal anecdote about Bruce meeting Frank Sinatra and showing him his fighting skills by knocking a bodyguard through a door that is great.
Trailers (6:01) – The international and domestic trailers along with three TV spots are presented. Video quality is poor but these are well worth watching to encapsulate the film’s craziness in a few minutes.
Circle of Iron is doubtful what Bruce Lee intended and will never be mistaken for a great film, but a good time can be had with the right expectations. My rating tries to split the difference between those who can appreciate the inadvertent goofiness and those who find the whole thing cringe inducing. Blue Underground works with the limitations of the low budget source material giving the best home video effort for this title. The extras, while not overwhelming, will be appreciated by fans. As stated, I really enjoyed this for the camp value, however unintentional.
– Robert Searle